Sometimes finding your passion requires walking away from it for a bit. For Present Music Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim, that meant taking a break from graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Peck School of the Arts, putting his trumpet back in its case and hitting the road.
“I took about a year, hitchhiking and doing odd jobs,” he says. “I was really disillusioned with the classical music scene.”
But music was still in his soul, and he reconnected with it at Interlochen Arts Camp, where he spent summers as a child. As a camp counselor, Stalheim started a polka band that he describes as the “antithesis to the daytime scene” at the classically oriented camp. “Once a week we had a polka band freakout show, with 400 to 500 people from 10:30 p.m. to bar close. Famous musicians like Fredrick Finnell and Lionel Hampton would jam with us after concerts – they were really bizarre polkas.”
Stalheim found his niche in organizing people to do unexpected things, and he headed back to UWM to finish his master’s degree, this time with a focus on conducting instead of performance. “Performing to me was just this emphasis on performing one line played by one instrument – choosing what to play was a lot more exciting to me,” he says.
While studying, Stalheim itched to work more directly with musicians. “It was a lot of study with recordings and piano, but not the nitty gritty with musicians,” he says. So he began organizing his own free concerts in unlikely places likes banks and grocery stores – all with an emphasis on making the music accessible, “presenting” the music. The ad-hoc concerts morphed into a full-time gig for Stalheim as the leader of Present Music, now celebrating its 31st season.
“A part of university life is getting students to open their mind to a varied world,” Stalheim says. “I knew I was about connecting music with audiences. There’s a huge audience for new music – music I believe in. Putting it together and making it accessible for a wide range of people – that’s what turns me on.”
See Stalheim’s work at Judgment of Midas, April 12 and 13, Helen Bader Concert Hall, 7:30 p.m.
Photo by Joo Photography